089. Problematizing Romance: You Can't Consume Your Way Out of Oppression
Problematizing romance: what happens when we dare to interrogate the assumptions that underlie the worlds into which we escape? Morgan & Isabeau from Whoa!mance podcast join me to discuss commodity fetishism, Marx, how it's easier to cancel than realize there is no terminus, and how we can't sloganize or consume our way out of oppression. It's the whole enchilada. Don't miss an epilogue to our conversation about North and South that pulls it all together. ("I don't want to marry you to possess you...I want to marry you because I love you!")
PS: There's an intermission half way through the episode at a natural pause point if you want to listen in 2 parts.
crossover podcast, joyful problematizing, genre discussions
Problematizing romance: what happens when we dare to interrogate the assumptions that underlie the worlds into which we escape? Morgan & Isabeau from Whoa!mance podcast join me to discuss commodity fetishism, Marx, how it's easier to cancel than realize there is no terminus, and how we can't sloganize or consume our way out of oppression. It's the whole enchilada. Don't miss an epilogue to our conversation about North and South that pulls it all together. ("I don't want to marry you to possess you...I want to marry you because I love you!")
PS: There's an intermission half way through the episode at a natural pause point if you want to listen in 2 parts.
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Guests: Whoa!mance (Morgan and Isabeau)
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Morgan & Isabeau joined me in episode 076 to discuss Strange Love by Ann Aguirre
Problematizing: You Can't Consume Your Way Out of Oppression
Andrea Martucci: Quick note, before we begin. I know this is a long episode, so I created a very short intermission about halfway through to mark a good time to pause and take a break if you need a breather. Enjoy the episode.
Hello, and welcome to episode 89 of Shelf Love , a podcast that unpacks romance novels with nuance. In conversations with scholars readers, and other experts, Shelf Love contextualizes the popular romance genre within the broader critical discussion of identity, culture, and love and capitalism.
I'm your host, Andrea Martucci. And on this episode, I am joined by my pals, Morgan and Isabeau from Whoa!mance an excellent romance podcast you should check out. Morgan and Isabeau, how are you doing today?
Morgan: Hey! I'm doing great I love coming on your show because after your intro I always feel like I'm on like an NPR broadcast. Like I'm really doing something
Isabeau: I was thinking the exact same thing I feel like I'm living all of my best dreams. Hello romance. Terry Gross, I'm ready for your questions.
Andrea Martucci: That's Fresh Air, is it Terry Gross is on? Never listened to it. No idea.
Isabeau: That's fine, It's a compliment.
Andrea Martucci: oh thank God.
For my listeners that was Morgan first and then Isabeau. You'll get to know everybody's personalities in the course of this conversation. Morgan and Isabeau joined me previously on an episode where we talked about Strange Love. I'll put the link in the show notes if you want to listen to that episode. And if you want to get to know Morgan and Isabeau you should obviously listen to their podcast Whoa!Mance or you can hear all sorts of getting to know you info in their first Shelf Love episode but we're going to jump right in, in this episode, to the topic of the day which is problematization
Morgan: And or fetishizing,
Andrea Martucci: We'll figure this out over the course of this call. Two sides of the same coin?
Morgan: I think that's so ambitious that we're going to land somewhere -
Isabeau: we're going to try
Morgan: but we're definitely gonna problematize problematizing, in romance critique or in critique in general.
Andrea Martucci: Yes, Let's limit this to- we're talking about romance novels as always and yes I'l l lay out a very ambitious plan and we'll get where we get.
Morgan: Over promise, underdeliver. We're very comfortable with that at Whoa!mance.
Andrea Martucci: Good good. So what does problematize mean to you?
Morgan: So what problematizing means to me, by Morgan. You actually sent us a list of definitions and I really loved this like clean idea of taking something and creating an awareness around what assumptions went into the creating of that object and then poking those assumptions, Right. Asking why. Problematizing.
Problematizing is something that you can do in the creation of an object but it's also something that you can do in the evaluation or critique of that object. Problematizing is something that kind of organically happens in like every English class you take or every book club you attend. Every angry comment you leave on a social media post right.
But problematizing isn't necessarily inherently saying something is good or bad.
Isabeau: I think problematizing right now has this idea that like, we're coming to yuck your yums, and as Morgan said this isn't a work or an engagement of saying a thing is good or bad, it is looking at its structure and its underpinnings, and then poking around under the hood and being like, why does it exist in this manner? Is there a way to contextualize it better? Is there a way to engage with it differently than just to passively receive that this is the thing.
Andrea Martucci: So one of the definitions that I was reading, so this is from New Discourses, and they framed problematizing as a core of critical social justice and its theory and activism. And that to problematize something is to "look for, identify, manufacture, and or expose the problematics in it or associated with it." And "problematics are ways in which the phenomenon, entity, person circumstance, object et cetera, under examination falls short of the moral agenda that necessarily lies at the heart of the critical theory examining it, by definition of a critical theory which must be normative against what it sees as oppression particular." Yeah "So of particular interest are ways in which those things might marginalize, exclude, minoritize, harm, cause oppression, or maintain or legitimate dominance and injustice through the machinations of systemic power."
And so that definition definitely has at least a moral agenda if not a "this is right or wrong" at least trying to say, the reason we need to talk about this is because it causes harm.
Andrea Martucci: a goal towards causing less harm?
Morgan: I would say that definition comes with a lot of assumptions of its own. Such as the assumption that an object is causing harm which I think you would need to like, interrogate, Is the object causing harm, like what is inherent in this object that is causing harm. And that kind of gets to the idea of Marxists fetishization.
Andrea Martucci: So the other definitions one of them was from MLA, the Modern Language Association, that was I think they were making a more pedantic argument about how to use problematize. But however, I thought that this was actually an illustrative example. Quote, "when a writer says that her argument quote 'problematizes the concept of power in post-colonial discourse' end quote, she means that she is going to question the assumptions that underlie a certain concept of power. This is an appropriate use of problematize. It means throwing doubt on the core understanding of something that is taken as established truth or calling into question the status of something that is considered unproblematic.
It can also mean taking a hard look at who or what is included or excluded in a discipline or a discourse and the reasons behind those inclusions and exclusions."
Isabeau: I think that's actually really helpful for our conversation because this idea of throwing into doubt is I think the key concept in the idea of problematizing and there's an example that just like blew up this week where somebody at the Jane Austen Museum wanted to include problematization of how much tea Jane Austen's characters drink and that tea in 1814 through 1819 was a colonial project.
And people on the internet freaked out and they're like "you can't do this to Jane Austen! She was actually an abolitionist!" And it's like, while the evidence of that is meager at best there's plenty of evidence that tea and the consumption of tea was indeed a colonial project that the Austens would have known about because there were people in England at the time drinking coffee exclusively because of the crimes that were being committed against India by the East Indian Trading Company.
Morgan: Between the two definitions provided I think there's a really clear, like this distinction I want to make from like how we're going to use problematizing and how it's sort of understood in popular culture. The creator of the Tumblr blog Your Fave is Problematic came out recently and expressed deep regret for starting " cancel culture" as they understood it.
In case you don't know, Your Fave is Problematic, was a Tumblr blog where they would take celebrities and list out morally reprehensible ethically questionable choices that they had made.
One figure just to come up with an example, would be Henry Cavill, a man in his thirties dating a 19 year old, for example. That would be something that was put on. Now that brings up an interesting question that was kind of posed by the Tumblr blog at the time which was like can a human being be problematized? Certainly celebrity culture can be problematized but there is this understanding of problematic now meaning someone who's doing something morally or ethically questionable as opposed to like interrogating the assumptions that are inherent or like went into the structuring of an object, the building of a project.
Andrea Martucci: And when I think about that example, the systemic structure that seems to be capable of being problematized is that older man younger woman dynamic and I don't know the woman in question, like her relative power in the situation. The assumption there is that some people might think that it's completely natural, and I'm putting that in heavy air quotes, that an older high status man, handsome, wealthy famous, have access to youth and beauty, and particularly female, youth and beauty.
That is something that I think can be problematized and discussed, but I think you're right to point out that looking at individuals' choices and casting a moral judgment on that is itself problematic because it's it's perhaps not understanding that these are like larger systemic issues that are at play.
And I I think that that is a really good point for us to bring up early in this conversation is that problematizing things is often interpreted as you were talking about is now we must cancel this thing or this person or this this book whatever. Or at least some people kind of take it like if you like this thing now you're a bad person, Or you know it starts becoming this like snowball effect of like everything connected to it now is like tainted by association instead of being like we're just having a conversation because the point of problematizing something is pulling out that which is sort of assumed to be natural and good and right.
And you kind of can't get past those systemic structures of everybody just assuming well this is the default right? Without being able to have an open conversation
And I think what we've all seen happen in various fan communities and the romance novel community is not an exception to this, that to want to have a discussion about why an aspect of something is problematic often becomes an us versus them, Whose side are you on?
Isabeau: I think that's exactly right, because when something is problematized, you do want to do something with it. Like there does seem to want to be an action. And I think one of the things that happens in this moment that we're living in is that the action isn't further conversation or contextualization, or like, how can we now put this object into a different conversation or this idea into a different conversation?
Is this very much us versus them, cancel. Like this immediate sort of like all right I won't interact with it anymore. And I think you're right that like I understand the idea of having a terminus of problematization because like how can this be an ongoing project forever? That seems crazy. And like once we've discovered that the thing is like not working the way that we thought it would and like maybe we need to do something different, the idea that the conversation then stops and that like the action is usually to move either to defend the object from indefensible stuff or like cancel the people who
Morgan: Or to consider and this kind of gets to the fetishization, the Marxist idea of fetishization, but the idea that like if we do not buy this book, if we unfollow or block this voice, then we have done what we need to do to heal the cultural problem that led to this object being the way it is anyhow. And that's simply untrue. The object is not itself oppression. The object is a product of oppression and the only kind of effective way to fight that oppression is to actually take that understanding into the real world and apply it towards something that actually matters like policy.
Andrea Martucci: Right so we've been talking about this so far mostly from the perspective of analyzing that product. Like the product has been produced and now we are like a reader or a critic some external force now problematizing a text in this case. But there's also, texts themselves can problematize or fetishize anything right like power for example, or wealth or race, white supremacy or, all sorts of those things.
So this might be a good moment to talk about Marx's ideas on commodity fetishism.
Isabeau: I imagine that Morgan and I will probably take us in tandem.
Morgan: I can't ever say the word fetishization correctly. Oh my God
Andrea Martucci: You did it.
Isabeau: just did it.
Morgan: It literally felt like riding a bike for the first time
Andrea Martucci: Now I want to correct myself already because I was like, yeah. Let's talk about what happens within a text? Let's talk about commodity fetishism. However, you guys will explain this. I don't think commodity fetishism is just what one does in the work, it's also the way it is consumed or analyzed or whatever.
Morgan: It's yeah It's mostly the way it's consumed, right, although I think in romance novels I think a gesture towards this idea, not like a one-to-one right Because like what is Marx talking about? He's not talking about being a young girl falling in love with a pirate right?
Morgan: So it's not the cleanest transition. But for example virginity is very much a fetish, a cultural fetish, meaning not like you're super horny for virgins and you can only get sexually excited by the idea of virgins. But the idea that virginity in and of itself has no inherent meaning right, outside of like never having sex before, but it really only has that meaning because we assigned a word to it, a label for it, for that experience or lack of experience. But now that word and that idea has become freighted with things like being sexually desirable, being a "good" woman. That's all creating a fetish out of virginity.
Andrea Martucci: Being pure.
Isabeau: Right. Pure, Andrea, as you said, or that it becomes a virtue in and of itself when there's nothing inherently virtuous about being a virgin other than the value that we've assigned it. And so just to bring in like a smattering of Marx because I think it's easier to understand commodity fetishism in action than it is in like the thing where it's like the fetishism comes in when we divorce the use value from the object. So I grow apples and then I sell apples. But what you're buying is the actual labor that I put into the fruit itself. You're not buying the fruit, Right, that's how that happens. And that commodity fetishization is we've begun to value the thing not the labor behind it.
And so virginity is a great example of how, like we've divorced the thing and given it an assigned value as a culture that sort of like really ephemeral and divorced from the object.
Andrea Martucci: Hm And I mean this is not a romance example here but brands are a good example of this where, you know I was talking about rugs with my husband this morning and I was like, I don't know if there's a big difference between a rug we get from Rugs USA that's like $300 and something we get from Pottery Barn that's $3,000. Like I don't know if the quality is different, I don't know if the materials are that different or it's more ethically sourced. And I don't know, maybe they say that it is. It's really just the fact of the matter that they put it in a nice catalog and they've curated it and they've put a brand name on top of it that sort of starts to add all this other value that has nothing to do with the rug.
Morgan: Right. Well that's absolutely like, and this is what Marx kind of envisioned under late capital, is that the value of the rug, what went into making the rug, would become inherently meaningless, the same rug will have the same durability but the prices will be drastically different because of all of these other things related to power that go into it. Another idea is like when you're a kid and you have a poster of a car on your wall like you're you're not really imagining what it would be like to have that car, you're imagining what it would be like to have that power to have that car.
Andrea Martucci: and there's also an element of like class distinctions here where consuming certain products either represent that you are part of a particular class or represent your identity I think like in late capitalism, consuming has definitely become a huge part of identity formation. Like you are not this kind of person unless you consume the things that that kind of person consumes.
One might believe it's more important to buy that Pottery Barn rug if you're trying to convey a particular class like in like a middle-class upper middle-class, I've made it moment. Whereas somebody in the wealthiest classes a Pottery Barn rug is a marker that Ooh you got like a cheap Pottery Barn rug from a catalog. Like that's not what people of our class do.
Morgan: That distinction between Pottery Barn and Rugs.com dissolves or becomes invisible the higher you climb on the economic ladder.
Andrea Martucci: Right. And I think that where this does connect to romance novels is I think that a lot of the identity formation of a romance reader, particularly one who is involved in the community and the discourse and all of that, part of that becomes about consuming the right kinds of books And you start to hear conversations about you know my problematic faves. I mean it's a conversation that is had on this very podcast, but the idea of like oh I know that's a problematic fave. And like I know I shouldn't read this but I love it anyways.
And that is acknowledging like like I envision myself to be a particular kind of romance reader And I know that consuming this is in conflict with that because of the symbolic nature of consuming a problematic text.
So there's reading the right kind of romance within the romance community, but then romance identity creation is also very much formed in opposition to, or rebellion against the way popular culture views romance novels, and readers. Similar to what you were talking about before consuming the right rug, the Rugs USA rug versus Pottery Barn at a certain class means nothing. Similarly to non romance readers, they make no distinction between the right romance books and the wrong romance books. They're all trash.
Morgan: Well maybe not even that they're all trash but they're all doing the same thing which I think is kind of yeah like I mean if we strip that cultural meaning that has been assigned by Romancelandia itself, is there an inherent difference in quality or moral fiber between any two romance novels.
And like an example of that kind of making a fetish out of something I think you can see it in the idea that reading romance, any romance, is inherently like a feminist project.
Morgan: And the fact that you're reading a book that is written "for women by women" which in itself is chock full of assumptions, is a feminist project. Like something that is "written by a woman for a woman's pleasure is inherently feminist" doesn't really take into consideration the fact that women can be misogynists.
Isabeau: Not only that women can be misogynists but that romance puts on a pedestal an HEA and that the majority of romance ends in a heterosexual monogamous relationship and that there are people in the community that have already commoditized that feeling of like romance is inherently feminist into like "smash the patriarchy, read romance" and it's like, oh I'm not sure that those things always go together. See: Amish romance, see military romance See you know that like this this fetishization of the genre itself is a problem.
Morgan: Or even see like something we would consider like a popular idea of a good romance. Those can also uphold patriarchal ideas right. I'm just thinking in a general like historical romance idea because it's too early for me to remember any specifics but this idea of like it's the 19th century and you're a fiercely independent woman and you have a dream of traveling the world.
But instead you're going to marry this man and being with him and having kids is even better than traveling the world or like because you've married someone now all of your wildest dreams can come true. Like that is a patriarchal, the idea that you need to hitch your wagon to be fulfilled is an inherently patriarchal idea.
Isabeau: Morgan I love that you brought that book up because that's on my list of books that fetishize, it's Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens.
Morgan: Old but I think we see a lot of the I think you know the HEA itself, like a wedding, a marriage, heteronormative monogamous ending as pleasurable as they are to arrive at when you're reading a book, like it doesn't take much poking to see that that idea of fulfillment comes through marriage or through arriving at one of those relationships is a patriarchal project because it suggests that that you need to that you need to think of yourself as part of a twosome, right, to create your own family unit which immediately is also capitalistic because it takes you out of the idea of the collective in some ways, or it could be argued by someone who has clearer pathways than I do .
Andrea Martucci: And, I want to come back to the slogan "read romance, smash the patriarchy," because I think that is a really clear example of this idea that you can consume your way to fighting oppression. Like the act of not just reading romance, but let's be honest buying romance, supporting a particular capitalist endeavor that is created in a capitalist mode of production that, we know because we're engaged in the community, oftentimes exploits the labor of its creators, controls what is produced in a way that often- I'm talking about publishing now- often um, makes choices about what is palatable, what aligns with the values of those who are in those positions of power?
What it believes can sell, what it believes is marketable. So we're talking about something that is produced in this really toxic on many intersecting levels, environment. And then we're acting like the product of that is like some pure unproblematic thing that isn't just riddled with all of the flaws of every level of those systemic issues.
Morgan: like you can't fight society by bolstering it.
And the society we live under like to be very clear to be very explicit, Capitalism is racism. Like racism cannot exist without a capitalistic structure around it. And for example there was a lot of and is a lot of support, right? People putting out lists of Black historical romances you should read, Black romance authors who you should read, native romance authors who you should read. And buying the book is a way of bolstering people who are oppressed by the racist capitalist system that romance is very much party to, but are you actually reading the book? Are you giving that book to other people so that they can understand you know more than a single story of oppression. Are you voting, voting racist people out of office or people who are oppressing out of office? Are you advocating for policy? Where else are you giving your money in order to fight? Have you thought about prison abolition?
One of the things that frustrates me is that I think a lot of people think that by working on themselves via their pocket book, they're doing something radical and it's not because you're just participating in capitalism.
Isabeau: Yeah Andrea you said this amazing thing that we cannot consume our way out of oppression. And I think this brings us all the way back to the beginning of this conversation where there wants to be a terminus - when you call out something as problematic, it's like "all right then it's canceled and it's done." And it's like the same thing I think happens really quickly in romance where you talk about like, this identity of the romance reader as somebody who considers themselves reading the right books and like reads the right articles and understands why there's a particular kerfuffle around a particular author's tweet or whatever. And like if I just go out and buy Heartbeat Braves I'll have done enough.
And to Morgan's point about this idea that like it's not radical to use your pocket book in this way And it probably doesn't even shift the needle because like, did you write to Pamela Sanderson's publisher and say that you want more voices like hers? And to Morgan's point did you share that work with others?
Sometimes when I find this conversation really refreshing is when authors are really transparent about it. And in Heartbeat Braves Pamela Sanderson says that the couple on her cover is not Native and that made her sad but she couldn't find any Native models or photographers. And so she puts a call in her author's note at the end of the book And she's like if you are such a one please get in contact with me. I would like to pay you to do this, so we have the right representation for my books going forward. And like that's something she did on her own, her publisher didn't do that. You know what I mean? And so I think one of the things that we have to do is be really naked about it.
And when we sloganize our whatever, when we sloganize, we take out that transparency, right, we flatten the field.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah and I and I'm just thinking again we're talking about identity formation by consuming like I am the right type of romance reader so I do X, but again it's consuming to show identity not consuming something to show identity, but every part of this is consumption and I'm not saying that we can choose to live outside of capitalism, like we can't And and I'm not like saying know don't buy anything ever and like don't buy or read romance like that's not the point, but it's really just like to problematize even the idea - like I know the idea of liberatory romance has been discussed. I know John Jacobson AKA Femme Trash on Twitter did a panel recently that unfortunately I wasn't able to attend so I I don't know what they actually talked about in that panel but they and I were talking on Twitter about it a little bit and I was like yeah but publishing cannot be liberatory. Like publishing, romance publishing is a capitalist enterprise. And the purpose of romance publishing is to make money. And the purpose of romance authors is to make money.
And again look I have to make money too, we all have to survive here in the shit world that we live in. This is not a moral judgment for having to do this but I think that often the conversation about creating and writing gets very much wrapped up in this idea that - and I think academia is very much like this. There are certain fields where there's this belief that you are creating because you love it and you want to and the money is a nice side thing. The money allows you to do it but you're not doing it for that reason.
And and people push back on this all the time right, Like no I write for money. I enjoy my job but I wouldn't go to my job if I didn't make money. Obviously we all hope that we find some labor that we take pride in and have agency and feel well compensated for and valued and all of that. But at the end of the day you know everybody is making choices about what to do, what not to do, based on that.
I want to talk about the texts themselves, and the choices that are made. And I think a lot of times what can be problematized is the things that don't look like choices at all.
Morgan: That's interesting. Can you give an example?
Andrea Martucci: I think it's the things that are normalized as the right natural state of things. So like that a duke is desirable,
Andrea Martucci: that wealth is desirable, that certain markers indicate beauty and attractiveness
Morgan: right. One of which being unself-aware of your own beauty.
Andrea Martucci: yes because you can be beautiful as long as you're humble. You cannot be vain. You cannot put work into the formation of your beauty because again of the structures of what we have constructed around femininity in particular. The bodies that are represented, what is considered the norm of bodies: white, able-bodied, neuro-typical, thin, young did I say young yet. You know that is what is constructed as desirable, and it's not like at any point, oh, a lot of times in these texts, it's just like oh that person's hot. And it's like we don't need to explain like exactly what about that the other character believes is attractive. It's just like yeah, Yeah we know. We get it.
Morgan: And I think the practice of having for instance, a fat heroine, someone who exists in opposition physically to that traditional, that pop culture idea of beauty, also it's like ideology. Even when you try to resist the web, you just create a new spoke in the web. The fact that you are so insistently in opposition only manages to highlight what is normal, even more.
Andrea Martucci: There is the default and then there is the Other.
Morgan: Yeah. Like you can't be celebrated for writing a fat heroine without that being an act of rebellion ergo, that is further normalizing thin heroines.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think we're now getting into fetishism because I think fetishization can happen on both fronts, right? Like where, if so much is made of the fat heroine, that it becomes a fetishization of that aspect of the identity.
Morgan: Right. This is a good romance because it has this one trait
Andrea Martucci: Right And if one's entire character is built around that, that is then saying, wow, I am so Othered by this aspect of my identity that it takes over it consumes my entire identity.
Morgan: yeah And serves to further Other fatness.
Your existence isn't predetermined by this one trait. I think that's a really good point and I think it is like an example of fetishization. And I think that we do when we read something that seems to apply pressure to norms period, that we immediately understand it as something revolutionary. But is it a 180 or is it a 360 but counter-clockwise.
Isabeau: Exactly. And I think this comes up quite a bit in romance. I think like fat heroines are particularly good one where it highlights and reinforces the othering and the normalcy.
Sylvia Day did this series called Crossfire, about a billionaire who like basically falls in love with an employee. Anyway it's so bad and so problematic on so many levels because it fetishizes billionaires and allows for particular kind of male violence that I think we as a community like have decided is basically acceptable in romance in a quote unquote alpha hero so there's that, but there was this one moment that in the first book Bared To You where she gets a Brazilian wax before they're going to hang out and then like she tells him about it and he's like I did the same for you. And yeah like he got a full body wax and I understood in that moment that like the text wanted me to understand that like because he had also gotten a full body wax
Morgan: this is a romantic gesture of egalitarianism?
Andrea Martucci: Like no it's you know it's okay. Everybody's doing it.
Isabeau: Right I'm a good man to show you that I too am hairless
Morgan: I have also physically suffered for your lust?
Andrea Martucci: Yeah
Isabeau: Exactly. It's thanks, babe I'm glad you did it because you gotta be hairless. But I am too, because I feminist man.
Andrea Martucci: I also believe that I must groom myself in a very particular way to be attractive
Isabeau: Exactly and it was like oh, I understand that you thought you were doing something particular or even quote unquote revolutionary because you have a discussion of the man's grooming practices before they have sex. But like what you've really done is just reinforced like pretty negative stuff about like bodies and how they operate with hair. Like we haven't gone anywhere. We've just made it worse.
Morgan: Well it did it's a really good example I think of what Andrea was talking about, correct me if I'm wrong Andrea, where you try to in the creation of an object you're trying to problematize this idea, right, but you're missing a lot of the assumptions that got us here
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yes exactly. And as we're all talking about this I started to think about something in particular with fat heroines and I keep saying fat heroines cause it is something that we talk about a lot. There are a few fat heroes as well or fat people in general in books but it's by far the minority of characters. And you think about how often they're isolated you know, and this is something that I think readers of color often bring up, about how often characters of color are isolated from communities of people who you know share their race or like are not white. Like it's like a Black person in a sea of white people. And that is also problematic and you know it serves to then say like well I mean sure like the norm is that everybody's white but like look we you know
Morgan: Yeah exactly
Andrea Martucci: created this one Black character or you know like oh sure like she's fat but everybody else is you know thin or straight sized. Right? And similar to the fact that if we're just talking about American romance and the racial diversity of the United States, I mean so then you think about the diversity of sizes of people in the United States and you know without mentioning sizes I think it's fair to say that the majority of American people are not thin?
Morgan: Or what we have culturally agreed upon is thin because I do want to reiterate like thinness is the construct. Fatness is a construct.
Andrea Martucci: What is a normal size?
Morgan: Yeah exactly
Andrea Martucci: It doesn't exist.
Morgan: Right. And just to explain that because some people might be like what? Like you could create based on our current evaluation or definition of the word normal you could say like a normal size is the median size or a normal size is the average size or a normal size could be like your body has this ratio of bone to muscle. Like there's just too many different ways to evaluate normalcy for normal to ever like fully encapsulate its definition.
Andrea Martucci: Right right. So we're constructing this idea of the hegemonic culture. The culture is the norm even if it is rare, even if it is not the average or the median. Right And so that that becomes the default. The images that we see in the media are most often aligning with the hegemonic culture. So the hegemonic culture, the dominant culture is white supremacist, values power and wealth, Christian, and on and on and on.
And so if one is that thing if a character is that thing, it doesn't need to be remarked on. Whereas anything that falls outside of that suddenly becomes something to be remarked upon.
Morgan: Yes, exactly.
I know we've been talking about fat heroines but just because I think it's important to show my whole ass, there's also this recent movement towards and popularizing - cause it's not recent. Isabeau and I have found some really old books that have this but recently popularizing historical romances that have working class heroes and heroines who are not revealed to be secret Dukes at the end of the book, is really you know popular. And there might be a version of understanding that as an affront to valorizing wealth. Right? Valorizing inherited money or problematizing the idea that the aristocratic class is the only one that could access a happily ever after. But once again like these heroes and heroines who are working class, I mean it's not like they're Appalachian coal miners you know? They are still very much participating in the capitalist project. And heroines especially are valorized for you know being a woman as well as a worker.
Andrea Martucci: Like eschewing the labor of the domestic sphere, because it is lesser on a hierarchy of value.
Morgan: Exactly. Thinking specifically of a Christmas short story we read by Joanna Shupe and her heroine was a journalist but even though there were maids in the story she was only pretending to be a maid. And her position as a journalist was understood as something like she had left behind right her previous work as a maid, she had transcended it to become a journalist even though she was ripping off her housekeeper friends' tips and tricks to get published in a newspaper. And that was seen as a means to an end and like a product of being oppressed right Like she had to do this in order to get a byline. But that isn't problematized, it's only problematizing the fact that the publisher is only interested in her writing in so far as it's about the domestic sphere. But it's not problematizing the fact that she is exploiting her friends and making money off of it by passing off their tips and tricks as her own. Or maybe it did - Isabeau Do you remember?
Isabeau: I mean she wasn't giving them money or like praise in her work as I remember it. And I remember you and I talking about that specifically and it like immediately made me think of a meme where it's like support your friends projects, pay full price for their art. Or like if they're a bartender like pay for your own drinks so that's it that made me think of. And I think you know Andrea said this earlier, that there's this point It was like we all have to make money. Romance authors have to make money and like we like to read romance and so like if we're not going to take ourselves entirely out of capital and like exclusively read books from the library or from Wattpad although that might be a capitalist endeavor I don't know
Andrea Martucci: both of them are in one way or another.
Isabeau: Yeah. So it's like there's no way that we can extricate ourselves
Morgan: yeah. My hands are far too soft to extract myself from capital.
Isabeau: Okay Yeah I'm not going to like pulp my own paper and begin writing from memory all my favorite romances and read them like that. Like that's not what this conversation is like about or having. And I think one of the things that this is making me think of is that romance needs to problematize the hegemony of the white supremacist wealth valorization. And that is happening a little bit and not often enough. And like the duke is easily replaced in other sub genres by a billionaire or a very good werewolf or a movie star. Like there are so many different versions of duke
Morgan: it's just power.
Isabeau: Right because that's the underpin where it's like we love this thing And even books that are problematizing this valorization of power as Morgan brought up I think Joanna does this quite a, bit where she has working class characters, it doesn't push the envelope enough because it still has to work within the very confines of the HEA or the power structure itself.
And I think one of the things that is always really interesting about books that really try to take stuff on like Scarlett Peckham's The Rakess comes to mind, where there was like an explicit discussion about how power worked and why and how money worked and also had a heroine who is an alcoholic which I think was like one of the first times I'd ever read that which seems crazy at this late date
Morgan: Or an alcoholic that was acknowledged as alcoholism.
Andrea Martucci: Who wasn't just cured with love.
Morgan: wasn't just having a good time.
Isabeau: Which I think did such a great job of problematizing how much romance heroes and heroines drink especially in the historicals like everyone's just swilling champagne willy nilly, Like no one's an alcoholic?
Andrea Martucci: You're right. The Rakess is a great example of a text that is problematizing explicitly lots of things.
You have now reached the halfway point of this episode. It's a good time to pause if you need a break, before coming back for more. Grab a drink or a snack, take a nap, go to work. However you spend this time, Morgan, Isabeau and I are here waiting to continue with our conversation as soon as you're ready.
And we're back.
And another text that I think problematizes within the text those questions of power and aristocracy and what monarchies we care about i.e. the ones in the places where people are white, Europe, that sort of like Europe centeredness -is How To Catch A Queen by Alyssa Cole.
In the last Joyless Hags book club recording when I was talking with Katrina Jackson and Tasha L Harrison we had our whole discussion and then we were just talking afterwards. And we were talking about Alyssa Cole and I was like I think the reason Alyssa Cole is so successful commercially and yet is doing these really interesting things in the text is because she's coloring within the lines But and then like Katrina's like I don't think she colors within the lines and I'm like but I think that she builds a story three-dimensionally where she is technically hitting all of the points, she's staying within the boundaries of the genre and sort of reader expectations and the plot points and the archetypes and the tropes, but then she is like going deeper, going higher like she is pulling it out on so many different levels.
So I mean just a few of the levels that I think she's pulling out here So first of all you could call it a royal romance. So it's about a fictional African country. And it's a monarchistic government. I literally don't know the shit. Okay Whatever. There's a king
Morgan: And it doesn't matter in this context. So no pedantic comments on this.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you Morgan. Okay, there's a king and the heroine becomes the queen very early in a marriage of convenience. So we're hitting a lot of tropes here. It's set in present day and she wants to be queen and that usually is like a, what, like she wants to be queen? She's not a reluctant royal? Oh my God, that's so funny because that's literally the name of her other series, the Reluctant Royals anyways. Ah, um,
So here's here's what I think this book pulls out is it actually addresses colonialism and the fallout of that. It is dealing with the power that a king has and what one in a position of power can do with that. And really interrogating the responsibility of that and like nation building and caring for the people of the land that you're ruling instead of just making choices in service of narcissism. It's dealing with toxic masculinity with the main, the hero. And and probably a million other things that I'm just like, not thinking of off the top of my head here, but it does all of that within a format that I think is very, I'm gonna use the word comfortable for readers.
Morgan: And do you find Andrea that she's even winkingly using these tropes? Or do you think it's genuine? It's very it's done with a great deal of sincerity?
Andrea Martucci: I think both, can I say both? like I don't think that Alyssa Cole is uh, a craven opportunist, who's like (evil villain voice) I can make money in romance, muwuhaha. Like I, I think she loves it. I think she deeply understands these tropes.
And I think that she is just able to reimagine the world in which these tropes can exist and sort of hit the buttons for readers while also problematizing those very topics that we see brought up a lot, right? Like we're used to seeing people in power and they're always like "I hate power." Like "I wish I didn't have all this responsibility." And then they never do anything good with the power that they.
Morgan: Right exactly. And I think maybe you know talking about how Alyssa Cole clearly has like a deep understanding of these tropes that's demonstrative of problematizing the structure in and of itself, and considering like what is inherent in this structure that is interesting or that will allow me to explore these other ideas. Problematizing is a tool to gain greater understanding, and through that greater understanding that allows you to see things more three-dimensionally and even manipulate things as they exist to service more radical or revolutionary ideas. So for example like you clearly stated taking the idea of a reluctant royal but turning it on its ear so that they then feel obligated towards using their power for something other than class stratification.
Isabeau: I think that's exactly right and I like I'm curious Andrea when you said that one of the things that you think about her commercial success, and I would also put Courtney Milan in this where I think this is a person who understands the tropes of romance deeply and also cares deeply about the genre and the community at large, who is using the tropes to say something different and to as Morgan says engage with problematizing the landscape. And I do wonder about their commercial success because it's undeniable and I think it's interesting. And like the first thought I had was like oh they're Trojan horsing it. And I don't I think that's actually -Yeah that's really pat that's not what's happening.
And I'm really interested in why the structure of problematizing the tropes in the way that Alyssa Cole and Courtney Milan have is so commercially successful. There's also a history of it too I think you know obviously Beverly Jenkins is been doing this and so I'm yeah I'm curious about this because, is it the moment that we're in? Is there something else going on? And to answer Morgan's other question, where it's like do you think it's genuine or winking, and I think your answer of it being both is right but I also I think if it were more winking and less earnest that it wouldn't be as commercially viable?
Andrea Martucci: I feel too though, they are successful and I'm glad they're successful, but are they as successful as the people who are writing stories that like fetishize small town white sort of like, oh they're good people kind of romance?
Morgan: Are they as successful as Debbie Macomber? You can say Debbie Macomber, It's ok.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I guess that's who I was thinking of. No, you're right. You're right. And and I have to acknowledge there are a lot of romance writers and they've been around longer so like it's hard to compare careers, but like sell many more books than Alyssa Cole and/or Courtney Milan. And we don't really talk about them so much in the romance community we're in but that is probably the majority of traditionally published romance that is consumed in this country.
And I think that that work is fetishizing a particular type of life, and particular gender roles I think specifically and I'm not saying this based on like deep knowledge recently of this but I certainly read a lot of things in the past that are informing kind of what I'm saying now. So I guess I don't want to make it seem like everybody is gravitating towards work that is problematizing these things cause I don't think the majority of readers are. I mean I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of the authors that we're talking about as sort of like wow they do a great job problematizing these structures are authors who have intersecting marginalized identities
Morgan: right. Yeah I'm glad you brought up Alyssa Cole as an example - like there is a way to problematize effectively. Isabeau pointed out earlier though like it's it's kind of endless because we do live under these structures. And it's hard to dig to the very very bottom of something like that.
One of the things that I think is such a drag about romance is that it's not taken as seriously as other genres and I don't know if anyone's actually interested in starting to take it seriously because I don't know if anyone is approaching it with this like clear eyed - Like I don't think people are that interested in problematizing romance as a genre. And maybe it's because it's wrapped up in this idea of pleasure And when you start to problematize something it can get more difficult to find pleasure in it. And I think honestly when people find pleasure in a romance they're less interested in problematizing it. Which on one hand it seems like that means it's a really effective romance right, if it grabbed you in that way.
Andrea Martucci: That you have escaped
Isabeau: Cause it's so transporting
Morgan: but on the other hand it's it's selling the text short and like also I think that there are romance novels that can absolutely stand up to the same level of critique, have the same kind of depth and breadth as fantasy novels that are on a lot of syllabi or science fiction that's on a lot of syllabi, but it's not given that opportunity because people are so protective of their pleasure.
Andrea Martucci: you said nobody is doing this, do you mean readers? Do you mean critics Academics? Who are you thinking of when you say that?
Morgan: So let's take for example the Bridgerton television series and I've I full of course I'm just saying nobody like people are. (laughs) And Whoa!mance is super guilty of this as well. Whenever we come to the table and we say, what is the value of romance, like why does it deserve to be taken seriously, one of the arguments that regularly gets brought up is like what a big slice of the publishing dollar pie it takes up.
Andrea Martucci: Which, by the way, I know people keep saying this and I know that we have a $2 billion industry or whatever semi-recently from RWA's facts and figures, but like, I bet cookbooks are more than a $2 billion industry. Just as one thing, right? Like I want to push on that at some point, like this idea,
Andrea Martucci: romance drives the industry. Does it, like
Morgan: RWA has a vested interest in proving that fact So their data should automatically be
Andrea Martucci: And I think that the problem is it's does it need to be to be valid?
Morgan: Exactly, Exactly like that argument misses the point. Like Darko Suvin did not come forward and say science fiction $2 billion industry. Right? And we need to take it seriously. Darko Suvin being one of the academics who kind of started the science fiction as as a term to art being something that is both structured and interrogable in academic circles because of that. Which is for me the very limited lens through which I'm saying like take it seriously But I think also, this gets me back to Bridgerton, I made my way back on my little tangent.
So I have not watched Bridgerton because first of all I have some problems with the text itself which it does not seem like this television series resolved in any meaningful way but also because when I first saw the ads for it the costumes looked cheap the wigs looked cheap and I in fact found out that I can't think of the actress's name or the characters name but the red curly wig
Andrea Martucci: Nicola Coughlin.
Morgan: Yeah, which this happens a lot in films- Her wig was originally constructed for Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots. But they didn't even restyle it. (laughs) And it's like this is what I mean like They do not take us seriously. They do not put a real budget into this series and no matter how much money it makes it's just going to be put towards you know another like what another fucking David Fincher project. Like that's what we're toiling for? I love David Fincher. I wish I could've thought of a male director of a Netflix series who I didn't like but personally.
Isabeau: Point still stands.
Morgan: But you know what I mean? Like David Fincher's great But I've seen so much of his stuff Like I would like to see some new voices, women's voices. I would like to see a romance adaptation that showed a true investment in that project, right? And that's what was so frustrating is that like here is yet another area where the main value of romance is going to be expounded on as like its popularity as opposed to the meat of the text itself. And the fact that you could see like loose strings around the zippers on the costumes was like this really material demonstration that like THEY all caps T M do not take romance seriously.
Andrea Martucci: It's really interesting you say that because I have data on some of this stuff which I've literally been over the past week, like digging into the data on trying to parse out what people were attracted to about Bridgerton, like non romance readers compared to romance readers. I think you're very right to point out it can feel like there was a slapdash effort to like yeah, just throw some attractive people, make the colors bright and have some titillation, like some explicit sex, some spoon licking, this is going to get those simple-minded idiots excited. And obviously I'm talking about like a stereotype about like well we don't really have to put that much effort into it. People will show up for this. We can make the successful, it's Shonda Rhimes.
Andrea Martucci: let's build a lot of press about what this show is doing and
Morgan: won't and we won't be put out by it because who cares anyways?
Andrea Martucci: There's so many fruitful avenues to go down with this but I definitely wanted to talk about like the stated project of romance from authors, from readers, from podcasters even. like when we talk about what romance is trying to do and let me actually use Bridgerton as an example here. Bridgerton on Netflix marketed itself as like this groundbreaking show because it was a period piece by Shonda Rhimes productions, and we all love Shonda and wow we're all impressed because of the brand associated with this production and for some people they would also be like "wow Julia Quinn's novels. I'm going to watch this no matter what."
And then the color conscious casting. This was the big thing that was talked about endlessly in the media. There's these characters in the show who are in positions of power. Like the duke is a Black man. Wow! Like who could imagine? Without going too far down the road of is this really how far our imagination can go? Like our imagination go no further than just like swapping a Black man into the role of rich powerful man in a harmful power structure? Like that is progress?
Okay and again also without going too far down the road of and which characters that they cast as people of color and like how do they treat those characters on the screen. What I mean there's there's so many things here right? But the message that was conveyed in the way this show was branded was that the value of this production was like, it's so progressive because of the colorblind casting and Shonda Rhimes is like such a great producer and she's a woman! She's a Black woman So like therefore we've created this patina in this message. Honestly it is trying to pretend that there is like a progressive value to this story for these reasons. It is fighting oppression for these reasons, and that's why you should consume it.
And even the audience reception afterwards, "you have to support this because otherwise Hollywood won't make more romance stories, or won't cast people of color in leads. If you supported season one you have to support season two because of these actors who have marginalized identities who are in the cast. You have to consume it for these progressive reasons.
And then you get beneath the surface like is it progressive? Like or is Julia Quinn getting rich, getting credit for this progressive casting when her books have all white characters. And you start to kind of get beneath it and you're like wait a second. Like I know that you say that to your project but have you actually done what you say that you're doing here? And like that's just an example that I feel like has been talked about a lot on a lot of levels and like that's not even getting into the consent issues.
Now walk that back to romance. If authors and readers and publishers consistently spin this message that romance is smashing the patriarchy, that because it is associated with women whether that is totally factually true, somewhat factually true, or not, that this association means that therefore it is progressive. If we say that the industry is doing something then you have to support it, uncritically.
Where I'm trying to get at is at the beginning of this conversation, there was like that one definition that was like, you problematize explicitly to move things in a particular direction like against oppression. And I think that as I started going down that road of thought, I was like, I don't know, it feels a bit like everybody has to do this all the time. And every text has to do this.
That started feeling really prescriptive and didactic. And I realized that I think my problem is that they're not doing what they say they're doing.
Morgan: Exactly. Exactly. You can't move against patriarchy and a capitalist project really? Systemically speaking,
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Man does not equal patriarchy, but if you look at the makeup of publishers we understand that publishing is a system that suffers from a lot of systemic issues in an exaggerated way I think, because of the dynamics of it, a lot of times, not exclusively, the people who are most able to afford to work in publishing that pays like crap is if you already have wealth or you you have resources that allow you to survive your terrible paycheck and do something that you love that there's a certain like prestige associated with, there's a glamour associated with it, you know all all of that. So what's the majority of people that work in publishing.
And then I think it's also been observed that a lot of people on the business side tend to be men, white men in particular. Also we can assume from privileged backgrounds.
Well at the bottom you have the producers who may be majority women. Again not that that means necessarily not internalizing these power structures. And then it's like the farther you get up into like the power and who is deciding where the money goes, deciding which authors are promoted and given the highest advances et cetera, the more we start getting into Individuals who are not problematizing anything who are highly invested in benefiting from these systemic problems.
Morgan: And insisting on support without question.
Isabeau: Yeah. and I think that gets to an even more insidious maneuver that I think is important for this conversation as we talk about the fetishization of a particular object in a book or the genre itself, where it's like, why does a mediocre book become a runaway bestseller? It's because it had all of the money behind it. It became a bestseller because it was going to be a bestseller. Because the publishers and business people and marketing decided that.
Morgan: It had a cover with mass appeal. It was put on the shelves in Target. It was put in front of a publisher backed super popular (cough) book club (cough) which I'm only not naming because I can't think of the name
Andrea Martucci: Are you thinking of Oprah?
Isabeau: Reese Witherspoon also has another one.
Morgan: Reese Witherspoon but then there's like the actual book club
Isabeau: But yeah, and like those advanced reader copies got into specific hands, that author did a specific circuit that was paid for by the publisher. And like those choices are made. So then this idea where it's like, a smash the patriarchy read romance. It's like we don't even have as many choices in those terms, as we think we might. I'm always surprised when a book gets a ton of fanfare and I read it and I was like, whose fanfare was this. Cause like then it turns out that like as Morgan and I have talked about on Whoa!mance before where it's like, the people that I trust to review a book either won't review it or have been silent about it.
It's loud somewhere else but it's not loud in particular circles in Romancelandia which is usually an indicator that the book isn't very good.
Morgan: But you have to carry so much institutional knowledge to even be able to parse that.
Isabeau: Totally like that's not obvious especially to anybody who's like coming into the genre like oh this is on you know Oprah, or Reese or like it's got such a beautiful cover. It's in my favorite feminist bookstore now, it's like. (laughs)
Andrea Martucci: One thing I can tell you that I extrapolated from the research that I have done is there one of the questions I asked was basically a write in of what are the three words or people or whatevers that you associate with romance novels or what are three like TV shows or movies that you most associate with romance and the answers are surprisingly consistent.
Like you would be surprised how much people associate, like what is a romance novel? Fabio, Danielle Steel, uh, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook. And I'm probably forgetting some, but it was very much influenced by what had a TV show or movie adaptation, like there are certain books that as you were saying like they enter the public consciousness, not necessarily because they are the best. Like Twilight was like, obviously hitting something like it, you can argue a lot of things about Twilight, but it was like readable and it had a lot of things going for it. And then you put a movie on top of that, a bunch of movies, like now you're associating it with like celebrities. It's just getting pulled Pulled into so many different things but like, all of these things at play that are really heavily loading our ideas about romance, about what is popular, whatever, that really has nothing to do with " this was the best book and this is why we made an adaptation out of it or whatever."
Morgan: Or things that are like actually a romance adaptation, like for example, Outlander, To All The Boys I've Loved Before.
But there's an instinct in the production to distance itself. And I think Bridgerton is an interesting lightning rod because it didn't. But I think one time who's the guy who plays Jamie in Outlander? I saw him on a morning talk show and he described it as a romance novel. And one of the interviewers went oh And he was like oh right right right That's like one of the no talking points.
Andrea Martucci: What?
Isabeau: It's because Diana Gabaldon herself refuses to call it a romance.
Morgan: But Diana Gabaldon wouldn't have that same influence over the presser of the season two of Outlander. That was a choice by Showtime.
Isabeau: I think, but also like she's an executive producer. She actually has a lot of control over the show itself and she has been really rigorous about not having it branded as a romance. That's why it's not shelved in the romance section at Barnes and Noble, when it was being sold. It was in the historical fiction section.
I think Philippa Gregory does the same thing even though she's basically writing romance novels and so I think like Diana Gabaldon's not as good an example as like Bridgerton even though we all know what it is. But then like if the author is dead like the death of the author it's she really get to say that it's not a romance when we all know that's what it is.
Andrea Martucci: But even if she doesn't call it one if the general public is receiving it as romance novel I mean it doesn't it doesn't matter what truth is, in that case. It doesn't matter what Diana Gabaldon thinks It doesn't matter what Showtime thinks, it doesn't matter where it's shelved. All it matters is how people think of it and perceive it.
Morgan: But I think it's important that there is an intentional opposition in the way the television show is marketed and that the intentional opposition exists. And the fact that it exists at all I mean.
You know any work of science fiction is not going to deny that that's what it is
Andrea Martucci: Are you saying you think this is a result of not wanting to associate with a quote unquote lesser form of entertainment?
Morgan: Right Correct
Andrea Martucci: Gotcha Okay I mean that's probably definitely. I'm not disputing that that's at play like totally is
Morgan: but I would like romance to move past that.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Who was that I can be for about studying things in the classroom. You can take anything and analyze it and problematize it.
You know everything is sort of a product of the culture it was created in. And like even if it's not doing anything intentionally there are tons of things to talk about about with it.
I did want to come back to like various conversations I've had with academics have talked about how over time the study of romance has shifted from you know the early romance scholars coming from a very feminist point of view and talking about like do romance novels harm the readers like they're you know consuming this fantasy that's harmful to them and that's reinforcing traditional patriarchal gender roles et cetera et cetera.
And then we've evolved now to this point where academics are ACA fans they are fans themselves of the genre and so they're more respectful and more able to understand that one Harlequin is not every Harlequin and understand that there are textual differences and all of that. Did either of you read Janice Radway's Reading the Romance?
Andrea Martucci: Okay I read it a long time ago and I tried to read it again recently. And honestly I think that she does seem to have like a somewhat dismissive attitude towards the people that she's interviewing. My takeaway is like the more I think about her arguments the more I'm like I don't know I mean she's not as wrong as people like to make her out to be like I mean I do have questions about some of her takeaways and her analysis, but I also feel like there's a resistance to acknowledging that - this is another thing that came up repeatedly in my research, the idea of romance as escapism, everybody understands that romance is escapism. Non-readers heavy readers, medium readers. everybody understands it. It's really just a matter of the value that one applies to what escapism means that seems to
Andrea Martucci: differentiate the stereotype.
Morgan: One thing I would observe is that Radway was doing a sociological study as opposed to like a humanities imagined discourse on romance novels themselves, but her object was romance readers as opposed to romance text. And I think whenever we talk about fan academics, they tend to be people who are talking about the object the film or the book itself, which will create, I think like the mere process of interrogating a text and getting that published in a peer reviewed journal is lending a sense of value to the text, whereas asking someone why they read a book is always going to get you somewhat of an escapist response, a fiction book is always going to get you somewhat of a of an escapist response.
It's like when I was in grad school I met a woman who was doing her PhD on law and order SVU and one of her frustrations was whenever she went to present people always wanted to ask her about the people who watched it as opposed to like the show itself and how it was like this populist programming.
What I think is great about like interrogating a text and something that I think needs to be understood in the zeitgeist is that problematizing is not the same thing as disliking and in fact for some of us like, if I didn't get to the bottom of my yucks when I read a book and get to the bottom of my yum's when I was reading a book like a romance, I wouldn't be able to enjoy my yum's. Like if I don't understand it I could be getting pleasure from something that's actually harmful maybe but if I do understand it then that gives me a little bit more control over my consumption.
Isabeau: the escape, which is ultimately where I think Radway I think as you said earlier, Andrea, I don't think she's as wrong as Romancelandia likes to say that she is. I think, she wrote it in what, like 1981, 82. So it's dated in a couple of ways, but I also think like the central mover and some of her questions about like, why would these high powered women who like call themselves feminist read a book likeFlame and the Flower.
Morgan: Well she never described the readers as high powered
Andrea Martucci: I Yeah sense that they were mostly like self-defined homemakers and this was like a rural or suburban area in the Midwest.
Morgan: rural or suburban areas
Isabeau: One of the things that is interesting about that kind of question and like her dismissiveness of it is like it's good to think about what escape you choose and for how long you choose it and like your ability to put something down or come back to it, I think is like a worthwhile question. And I think her work around like how those things can work in like a reader's conflicting lived experience versus their reading experience is an interesting topic that is still within romance where it's like you know when we were talking about like oh our problematic fave. And I think sometimes we say problematic fave in the same way people say guilty pleasure (Andrea and Morgan: sounds of agreement)
And I think it's worthwhile as we've been saying this whole time where it's like, we're all in this system. And so how do we like relate to the system? Confront the system, or consume the system, or are consumed by the system. And I think this is like one of those really interesting questions where it's like getting to the bottom of severe yuks and the bottom of your yums might indeed give you some ability to control what's happening, but it also, maybe more importantly, gives you objective distance to actually look at the thing.
Morgan: And actually understand the system which is an important step to taking control of the systems that led to the object itself.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah And I find a lot of value and enjoyment in doing that. And I think you two obviously do, and I think this is what I was kind of thinking of and trying to get at earlier. It's I'm like I don't think everybody has to do it if they don't want to like I certainly don't begrudge people their pleasure. And I think that we've covered like okay, you can take pleasure in it uncritically. That's fine I'm not going to judge you for doing that. Don't judge me for wanting to critically engage with it, and like don't find that problematic. Like these can coexist. I'm not saying you can't enjoy it, I'm just saying I enjoy it even more if do this.
Morgan: Yeah But don't get upset then if someone asks you how or why is this feminist and you don't have a good answer.
Andrea Martucci: That gets back to you can just enjoy it you don't have to turn it into no this is a progressive project
Andrea Martucci: If you just want to enjoy it and you don't want to actually interrogate that just enjoy it. Don't make a bold proclamation about how you're going to change the world by doing this activity.
Morgan: Right because you're not
Andrea Martucci: Right, so the problem is always just what you say you're doing. Just do what you say you're doing and there's no conflict. I think the conflict is when people are not doing what they say they're doing
Andrea Martucci: they don't want to confront that
Morgan: Yeah because that muddies the waters you know if if you're going to say that a book is progressive, well It needs to be progressive. You need to explain why it's progressive
Andrea Martucci: Right and romance as a genre can not be inherently anything because it is made up of a variety of texts from a variety of voices
Morgan: Right Exactly
Andrea Martucci: again, like it's a consumer product
Morgan: Yeah It's it's not inherently I think that's so right like it's not inherently good. It's not inherently bad because you have sexy consent talk and your romance doesn't mean that it's actually sexually progressive. Because some of that sexy consent talk could actually be coercion under a different microscope,
Because you know having sex at all between a man and a woman under patriarchy is inherently imbalanced and therefore can consent exist at all period? Not to totally yuck everyone's yums. But that's a train of, a line of, that's a legitimate line of questioning.
Andrea Martucci: And Isabeau earlier you were talking about sloganizing things I think that this is exactly why this is the problem, because when you sloganize, it flattens it And I think you said this earlier, but it loses its meaning and then if you can't explain what the slogan means you can't explain how it applies, it's meaningless.
Isabeau: Yeah and I think that is the whole enchilada. That's the Marx, right. Like that's the commodity fetishization where it's like if you can't apply it, if you can't apply the labor to the apple and like get a value for it, you have lost the meaning. And like you've turned it into a thing that it isn't. And you've just brought us all the way around, that's exactly right. If you can't apply to the slogan like you've done nothing, you've just literally divorced the object from all of its ideas.
Andrea Martucci: I think you brought it all around Isabeau because you just said that and I was like oh I feel like actually I understand that even more now. So thank you for connecting that.
Morgan: If you're going to say Bridgerton is a good show and it has shitty costumes, is it a good show?
(Andrea & Isabeau laugh) Andrea Martucci: Don't even get me started on the fitting of the costumes. That's honestly my biggest pet peeve. I'm like obviously somebody needed to do a forward shoulder adjustment on those frocks anyways.
Talking about escape, like you both are obviously interested in romance, you spend at least some of your time every week recording and producing and promoting a podcast about romance, talking about romance, et cetera.
Similar in my case, I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I think that sometimes there's also this instinct to say other genres do this, TV does this. And it's like, yeah, totally. But like, I am interested in problematizing romance. If anything I feel like the takeaway is that everything is created in the same systemic structures pretty much. Everything is subject to these external forces in similar ways I mean like obviously there are there is nuance there. And actually I think the nuance, what is important to talk about with romance is that the narrative structure specifically is usually constructed in a way that is telling the reader what is desirable, is normalizing things as desirable, is fetishizing things as desirable is normalizing that some things are not desirable.
Morgan: What human beings do you find of value?
Andrea Martucci: Yes I feel like that is critically important in romance and a lot of the story is dedicated to that. I just think that's like another lens that you look at romance specifically through but a lot of these things you can look at anything and ask these questions
Morgan: Right. So why not romance?
Andrea Martucci: So why not romance? Yeah. I don't know about you guys. I think we did solve this.
Isabeau: I think we did too I think like I feel really good about application of both fetishization and commodification of romance both at the structural level and at the individual text level. And I think Morgan and Andrea your last point about like how I think you're right to check it's more important but I think it is truly important for an entire genre that bends itself as Morgan beautifully said around what people do you value, that we are hyper aware of what the hegemonic structure of this genre is telling us about who gets valued. And like I think it is right to say that we need to engage with that because we are passively engaging with that even if we're just reading for escapism or pleasure, you are engaging with it.
Andrea Martucci: Right you. don't get to count yourself out, you don't get to extract yourself from that dynamic.
Morgan, Isabeau, you for coming on today to discuss problematizing, fetishism, fetishism, fetishization. Marx.
Morgan: Foot stuff.
Andrea Martucci: Foot stuff. And all that jazz. So first of all just thank you I think this was a fascinating conversation.
Morgan: Thank you for having us
Isabeau: It was delighting.
Andrea Martucci: It was delighting. What are you guys up to?
Morgan: I mean we're just keeping on keeping on. We're wrapping up our Jane Eyre read along series
Isabeau: Oh And we do have something exciting for June. We are doing investigation of categorical romances through the decades. So we're going to be looking at slim beautiful little pocket categoricals from 1960, 70, eighties and nineties
Morgan: We are going to take one book from each decade and use it to talk about every book from that decade
Andrea Martucci: that's how (all laugh) you do it Everybody knows that If you've read one you've read them
Morgan & Isabeau: You get
Andrea Martucci: Yeah,
I am You
Morgan: Yeah We'll be will be problematizing the category romance
Andrea Martucci: I look forward to listening to
Morgan: And we'll be problematizing our own assumptions about category romances
Andrea Martucci: Morgan and Isabeau, where can folks find Whoa!mance online in addition to on their favorite podcast app?
Morgan: Please find us on our Instagram at Whoa!mance, W H O A M a N C E
Isabeau: on Twitter at mance underscore Whoa
Morgan: and whoamancepodcast.com. We've got some blogs on there.
Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 89 of Shelf Love and thank you to Morgan and Isabeau from Whoa!mance podcast for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.Com. Since this was a long episode, I'm going to give you some time to digest before I released another episode. I'm going to say I'm still on hiatus and not officially back on a regular schedule of releasing. But as I've said before, I get itchy if I go too long without releasing new episodes. And as soon as I relisten to this conversation, I was just too impatient to wait to share it. So here you go.
If you recall from my outro in episode 88, I was on hiatus so that I could get my research organized for the Popular Culture Association Conference paper that I presented on June 2nd, 2021.
Well guess what I did it, and I think it went really well. The romance scholarship community is so welcoming and there are so many amazing projects being worked on that I had the pleasure to learn about over the course of the conference.
If you want to watch my presentation, I created a YouTube version that you can watch with slides and everything. Link in the show notes or search for my channel under Shelf Love Podcast. I will probably release videos occasionally so feel free to subscribe to my channel if that's something that you'd be interested in receiving updates about. I will also share the content of the presentation filled out with more details on the podcast in the coming months.
I'll definitely be back from hiatus in early July 2021. And right now I'm thinking I'll wrap up season two this summer and launch season three in the fall.
Thank you so much for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to Andrea at Shelf Love Podcast dot com.
This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you to Shelf loves editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L. Harrison. That's all for this week.
Black lives matter. Although I share this statement at the end of every episode, I hope you won't let it just be an empty slogan. I'm going to take some time myself to think about if there's something more impactful I can share at the end of my episodes that engages with fighting these interrelated systems of inequality.
And if you have any ideas, you can let me know.
Stay safe, stay mad and keep critically engaging with romance.
Marker [01:25:07] Morgan: How is like sitting in your office staring down at the factory workers any different from like sitting in your turret staring down at the serfs?
Andrea Martucci: Don't you talk about North and South that way! (laughs all around)
Isabeau: Listen I love Richard Armitage as much as the next person but
Andrea Martucci: I really need to think about that some more. Doesn't he at least started to start to understand the humanity of his workers eventually?
Morgan: Oh yeah he like manages to prevent a Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire And that's exactly what I mean about like we're all eating from the garbage pail the scraps of humanity
Isabeau: he gets them fans.
Morgan: We are not allowed to live a comfortable fulfilling life but at least we're not trapped inside a factory burning alive
And there's also that part where she yells at him for like beating his worker and he's like no if he had dropped his cigarette everyone would have died And it's like I feel like you created the conditions inside which everyone would die if one person lit a cigarette
Isabeau: But also when he proposes to her and he's like "I don't want to marry you because I want to possess you, I want to marry you because I love you." Literally you're dead. Like you can engage with both pieces right? Where it's like he's a terrible capitalist and all of these things that he's bad and he's creating conditions and yeah he's not the worst but like that's not a good measure And also oh my God I fucking love it
Andrea Martucci: look back at me.
Morgan: He doesn't rise above the level of decency, even if he's not the worst but also like problematize, like explain to me how his idea of loving someone is different from possessing them?
Explain that to me.
Isabeau: Well cause he goes to Somerset and he figures out her insides.
Morgan: Oh he goes to Somerset!
Andrea Martucci: I can't tell if you're being sarcastic.
He smelled a flower. Okay.
Isabeau: smelled a flower and it changed a lot of things
Morgan: He went back and described what sunshine and flowers were like to his workers
Isabeau: and then he like gave them food you know like he set up a lunch tray in a school
Andrea Martucci: I mean, we're technically recording. I'm obviously not going to put this in,
Morgan: I think you should put in the stuff about North and South
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